Goal and Context
The goal of the workshop , as explained by Scott Walker, the director of city development at Banyule, was to provide the community with the opportunity to contribute to the development of the Banyule City Integrated Transport Plan; the previous plan for 2003-13, has recently expired and a new one is now needed. He noted in his opening comments that the two most common issues mentioned by Banyule city residents are “trees and transport”; also, that transport and land use – what is built where – are inextricably linked.
Three people gave brief presentations in order to brief the 50-some residents, who had braved the wild and wooly weather that autumn Tuesday, some even by bike, with information pertinent to the topic. Kevin Agen, from the Banyule City Council, outlined the role of the BCC Transport division, which is mostly involved in daily activities, but also strategies and policies. Anything implementable through the BCC would be done by that division. Then, Simon Basic from VicRoads, who was delayed by traffic, spoke, informing us that “Plan Melbourne,” the outcome of work done last year on how Melbourne could develop to 2050, has been released; more importantly, he stated that the EW Link is “still a pipedream” but nevertheless an integral part of the multi-decadal plan.
Finally, Rowan Johnson of Public Transport Victoria, spoke to the heart of the issues around transport infrastructure: the balance of population growth and infrastructural investment. He put it quite plainly as this: population growth in the city has been mostly around the edges of the city – as it is currently predicted to continue – and public transport has been “under-developed,” though this last was a thinly-veiled attempt to avoid criticizing any government or corporation, past or present.
Mr Johnson elaborated on this last point, to say that rail is at capacity: more trains will just get log-jammed in the current system, which is in desperate need of increased capacity through the installation of more tracks. In the Banyule area, this means line duplication of the two single-track stretches between Heidelberg and Eltham, but also to create dedicated lines so that South Morang and Hurstbridge line trains would not have to share a single line between Clifton Hill and the city. However, the PTUA asserts that, in contrast, there is no capacity crisis in terms of passenger use, so why should new trains be needed, when modern signaling can run trains at the rate of one every three minutes – clearly far above the current frequencies? Regardless, Mr Johnson said that the on-road aspect of public transport, which is essentially buses as trams lines are too problematic to install, is in the process of undergoing a “paradigm shift” into which input would be most valuable.
Paradigm Shift for Buses
So, the news from Public Transport Victoria is that the paradigmatic shift for on-road modes – read buses – will involve creating three kinds of bus routes: “Premium” routes, as exemplified by the “Smart Buses”, “Connector” and “Neighbourhood” routes. The first would be the most frequent, long-running, and probably have the tightest connections with train timetables; I have heard from other sources that the maximum time between services, if people are to be able to turn up and go, not needing to schedule their lives around time-tables, is about 15 minutes. From the same company, Human Transit , comes the statement that is it frequency and reliability that determines the patronage of a transport mode. Melbourne’s SkyBus is one example of a frequent route, however, it is unreliable, due to delays caused by traffic during peak hours – the simple solution to which, Mr Walker of Human Transit was quoted in an article in The Age, is putting in dedicated bus lanes, something that would work in every municipality with Smart Bus routes, but one which was rejected as an option by the current Victorian State government. Regrettably, as we discovered, most of the obvious solutions to transportation issues are not anything that a local city council can implement, but more of that later…
Having previously heard some discussion about bus transport at a public forum held at the Sustainable Living Festival, this was a theme with which I was familiar: buses use mostly pre-existing road infrastructure, are relatively cheap to deploy at ~$350,000 each, and offer the greatest return on investment, according to Professor Graham Currie, who spoke who was one of several speakers at the forum. The main issue with buses is that there are far too few of them and their coverage – both temporal and geographical – as a consequence of this scarcity, is too limited, in spite of the fact that the bus system has grown by 60% in the last 13 years.
Also in spite of this, two-thirds of our PT system is comprised by rail and tram, but, conversely, two-thirds of our population lives near a bus line, but not near buses due to their aforementioned scarcity. The main issue with trams, at $6 million each, is that they are sharing the road with cars, while trains in Australia are among the slowest and most prone to break-down in the world. Of the three modes of public transport, buses have grown by 62% from a low base, or 46% of the total service growth, while trains have increased 30% and trams 9% since 2001.
After the presentations from the three invited speakers, the facilitator of the meeting, Mr Walker, outlined the structure of the meeting: there would be 5 short discussion periods, during which each group of 5-10 people would list as many ideas as they could on a series of topics, assisted by a table helper from the council; once the time had elapsed, each table would share a point or two from their collective effort with the wider group. The topics were as follows:
1) Land Use Planning and Transport Integration
2) Active Transport
3) Public and Community Transport
4) Road and Freight
5) Education, Marketing and Advocacy
Of these, the greatest amount of time was spent on the first topic, which is the most substantial as it involves the greatest number of elements, being the intersection of two aspects of the transport system: the modes of transport and the ‘hubs’ to which they connect.
Land Use Planning and Transport Integration
There were many suggestions that addressed the specific needs of small groups of transport users, relative to the majority of single-occupancy passenger vehicles: better access for disabled and aged people to all modes and at all transportation hubs; speed limits in activity centres; support for cyclists in terms of access and infrastructure. However, apart from advocacy and excepting some infrastructural elements like bike paths, city councils can do little about these things; most are in the purview of state-level bodies such as VicRoads, which is the arbiter of speed limits, particularly on main roads. One exception to this is provision of community busses, which have been recently discontinued and was a significant concern for many at the meeting.
Congestion is the Solution
There were two statements that stuck in my mind from this session. The first was the statement by Chris Kearney, who was the candidate for Jaggajagga in the recent federal election, which made very good sense: “Congestion is the solution.” Essentially, Mr Kearney was pointing out that we already have very good infrastructure for transport, in the form of privately owned vehicles, but commuter vehicles contain, on average, 1.2 people. That leaves about 75% of vehicles with 1 person. Again, there is little that local council can do to foster car-pooling; VicRoads could implement more multi-person transit lanes on all freeways, which would have the effect of driving single-occupancy vehicles into higher density in the remaining T1 lanes, but the state government is very unlikely to drive such an unpopular proposal.
High Rising Solution
The other suggestion was my own; though many proposed that higher densities of people living around transport hubs is necessary, no-one proposed the obvious solution: rather than mere 4-6 storeys being the maximum, as is the case for the Ivanhoe Structure Plan, for example, to increase the maximum height to 8 storeys or more. Here’s what the Ivanhoe Plan document says on the subject of increased density of housing in and around the station:
• Protection of the valued 2 storey heritage façades of Upper Heidelberg Road, while enabling up to 4 storey development setback behind the main street.
• Direction of most development to the five diversity areas subject to guidelines with a preferred maximum height of no more than 4-6 storeys, generous setbacks and landscaping.
• Protection of the desired character of Accessible Residential Areas in the Activity Area, including setbacks and landscaping guidelines to reduce bulk with a preferred maximum height of no more than 2-3 storeys.
Higher in Heidelberg
Looking at the equivalent structure plan for Heidelberg, the limit is given in metres rather than in storeys. As shown in the Guide to that plan – which is essentially an overview – the predominant height of the development area, which mostly abuts Burgandy Street and Rosanna Road, is 25 metres. This amounts to about 8 storeys, but only where the buildings can be stepped back from their boundaries in such a way that a pedestrian at street level could not see the upper floors of the building (see pages 30-33 of the Guide), or about a rise of 3 metres for each 2 metres set-back of a building envelope upper edge.
In real terms, then, with the 4th storey set back by 2 metres, the eighth storey of a building would be set back 10 metres from “sensitive land use” areas. Clearly, building 16-storey apartment blocks, which would have a tremendous impact on population density in the area, is far from being on the schedule. Examination of the areas identified for high-density development also reveals that little or none is scheduled for the area immediately adjacent to the station, along Mount Street (see page 15 of the Guide).
Cost of Parking Spaces
One of the big issues with developing such areas is that, typically, on-site parking is required for people who commute to the area as well as residents. This is, of course, simply pandering to the car culture which is at the heart of the urban sprawl and what makes public transport so relatively inefficient here in Australia, in comparison to Europe. Building huge shopping centres, where prices are lower than in small-holder shops, can only be achieved by externalizing the transport costs onto the public, through the necessitation of building more roads and parking spaces.
It has been estimated that here in Victoria, as elsewhere, incorporating car parking into buildings reduces the availability of accommodation and pushes rental and house prices up. One simple way that this could be addressed is by decoupling accommodation from parking, so that, in multi-storey buildings, residents would have the option of paying for yearly parking, rather than being required to do so as part of their purchase or rental price. Whether this is within the purview of local council is unknown to me, but I will be pursuing this in the future.
An Issue of Education
Another issue that was in this section was the use of de-comissioned, re-zoned school sites. According to the council’s website page on these sites, of the three school areas recently purchased from the Department of Education, “most of the land will be set aside for medium density residential use and refurbishment of the basketball/netball stadium, there are various complementary uses that will be considered for the Banksia-Latrobe Secondary and Bellfield Primary sites including possible local retail and/or commercial land uses.” The location of these sites is not central to any transport hubs, so putting even medium-density housing in place will result in more cars and more congestion. It is also telling that, within the information provided, there is nothing mentioned about public transport planning, to increase access from those areas to Ivanhoe and Heidelberg via buses.
This essentially refers to walking and cycling, over which modes of transport the council has some small purview: better lighting, zoning for school and residential areas, and off-road cycle and pedestrian paths. Bike infrastructure on roads is outside this purview, except by advocacy, once again to VicRoads; similarly the reduction of speed limits on residential roads from 50, the default state-wide limit, to 40 or even 30Kph, the latter of which is the internationally recommended speed limit to promote the adoption of active transport modes.
One thing discussed at our table was that, in order to promote walking and cycling amongst school children, the areas around schools could be zoned to prevent on-street parking, effectively making them car-free. The council member who was at our table for this discussion, Jenny Mulholland, essentially said that this was “politically unfeasible” – which means that, while it might be a good idea, the SUV-driving soccer moms of the well-to-do areas around Heidelberg and Ivanhoe wouldn’t stand for it, making it no option for those in council wanting to be re-elected.
Public and Community Transport
Bus frequency was a major concern for many, as well as timetables that are still locked to the 20th century 9-5, 5-day week working schedule, which is particularly inappropriate for an area heavily populated by hospitals, the workforce of which work unusual hours and 7 days a week. Cost reduction and free days on public transport were suggested, but, once again, this is outside the purview of local council; similarly, better shelters that are locally made will increase the ownership of the infrastructure and thereby reduce vandalism.
A TravelSmart Map was available at each table that detailed local transport options of this kind; it was also suggested that an electronic version of this would be useful, particularly one that had live updates of public transport departure times. The Map also outlined walking and cycling groups in the area, bike shops, and projects underway to enhance local use of facilities, including way-finding signage and a “Walk Heidelberg” promotional campaign.
Road and Freight
Contributions to this section were mostly focused on reduction of car use; with 75% of kilometers driven by passenger vehicles, and 75% of these vehicles being single-occupancy, the overwhelming consensus was that fewer cars on the road must be the ultimate goal of all transport and land-use policies. This means that, rather than increasing car-parking space available, a reduction of space should be attempted, with simultaneous increase in public transportation options and services provided. On the subject of car access, one person mentioned that parking permits are not managed locally, allowing the unscrupulous to rort the system by obtaining permits for parking in places where they do not live.
The use of the public transport system to transport freight was also suggested, but as there is not even enough political will to develop and upgrade the system through line duplications for passenger services, this seems highly unlikely to develop. Meanwhile, limitation of trucks carrying freight along main arterial routes is, as usual, the purview of VicRoads, so changing road use by freight trucks is not something the council can affect, except by advocacy.
The strength of opinion against cars led to the chair of the meeting, Mr Walker, to ask, somewhat plaintively, “Is there no-one with anything good to say about cars?” No, Mr Walker, it would seem not.
Education, Marketing and Advocacy
In some ways, this section should have been the main one, due to the limited capacity of local council to affect change in systems that, for the most part, pass through their jurisdiction and are the purview of state-level organizations like VicRoads. The most interesting point that was made was that no fewer than two tables reported on “commuter races” from areas local to the city, where individuals took public transport, rode bikes or took a car. The first report was of a group in another electorate that had done this, who asked: Why can this not be done by people living in Banyule City?
A member of an adjacent table to ours stood up and declaimed that this had indeed just been done and that the result was clear: bikes beat public transport beat the car, which in this case had been driven by the Banyule Mayor, Craig Langdon, who was present at the meeting. The individual reporting the outcome of this race was amused to also report that the Honourable Mayor had barely time to sip his coffee at the end of the race, before having to rush off to rescue his car from the 15-minute zone, which was the only parking to be found. Apparently, Cr Langdon had volunteered to drive only as there were no other takers for such an odious duty.
Failure of Advocacy
On the subject of advocacy, the Banyule council has been substantially less than active in speaking up about the pink elephant in the room, the EW Toll Road and associated freeway links. Cr Tom Melican is the only vocal advocate against the various freeways, with little or no support from the other councilors. One likely route of the EW Link, which will pave the way for the North-East Link, would despoil much parkland through the Banyule Flats area and as such is a major issue with Banyule residents.
As mentioned by one of the introductory speakers, Simon Basic, while there is no money on the table for this part of the many freeway projects, it is nevertheless an integral part of the larger transport plan. Consistently, the recently released infrastructure strategy for Melbourne’s north, Northern Horizons, shows a substantial preference for road projects over any other form, at 12 of 37 projects, with public transport being the next most frequent, at 9 of the 37 projects described.
Council Supports NE Link and Rail Infrastructure
Similarly, the council’s position on the NE Link is explicitly stated as being to “Support an outer ring road solution,” in spite of the many and varied reasons that such a link is not a viable long-term option, such as detailed in this transcript of a submission made to the council earlier this month by Dennis O’Connell, president of the Friends of Banyule.
In contrast, the council is avoiding a decision on the far more immediately relevant EW Link, having “not formed a view on this project given a lack of information regarding the project impacts, including impacts on Banyule” due to the state government failing to provide Banyule or anyone else with a clear picture of how the development might proceed. However, the indications are that if the EW Link goes ahead no money will be available for any other major projects, including all the various major rail projects, so any advocating for public transport projects cannot reasonably advocate for the EW Link.
To sum it all up: it seems that local council can do little more than advocate for public transport and facilitate collaborative projects, except in the area of building regulations and parking zones. There is some sign of improvement in the latter case, but of course many residents of Banyule don’t want their precious suburban landscape urbanized and so will fight any increase in building height, even if those are limited to shopping precincts. Meanwhile, the same people are happy to avail themselves of all the advantages that living close to ‘activity hubs’ provide. Modification of parking zone restrictions to promote “active transport”, even around schools, is similarly politically intractable due to the SUV-driving hordes who would protest having to walk any distance to deliver their children to school.
Banyule council’s current positive position on the NE Link is of substantial concern, especially as other, far cheaper alternatives – including better coordinated public transport, but, far easier than that, increasing the number of multi-person transit lanes on all freeways – have not been fully explored. The worst news is that the cost of the EW Link will consume all the funds available for transport infrastructure, preventing substantial development of any other kind of transport infrastructure. Moreover, a commitment to the NE Link is a de facto commitment to the EW Link; the former would follow the latter, but only if the money could be found. Given the time-lines considered, would mean nothing would be available for substantial public transport projects for close to two decades; this is the most likely time-line for the combined EW and NE Link projects, the former of which looks to be becoming twin nightmares for both the Napthine government and Labor opposition.
It has been asked whether we can afford to invest in suburban railways in our cities, such as in this article. I would reply “How can we not?”
An interesting For and Against piece, regarding the EW Link, in which even the author of the “For” position, Charles Everist, allowed that better public transport is still needed and that, while the link would not solve congestion issues, it would provide jobs and, somehow, enable kids to be picked up from school. The author against the EW Link, Alexander Sheko, stated that:
The East West Link represents a phenomenal expenditure that provides disproportionately small benefits to a disproportionately small proportion of the state’s population. It will consume a generation’s worth of infrastructure funding, ensuring our transport system remains firmly fixed in the last century—to say nothing of the opportunity cost to our health and education systems.